Scott Aukerman’s Latest Money Grab, or Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast: The BookBooks Features Comedy Bang Bang
Podcasts! They get us through commutes, long drives, workouts, and countless other activities that don’t require our undivided attention. One common complaint is shared by many: they’re nearly impossible to touch. The twisted minds behind Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast have heard your cries and provided a solution: Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast: The Book.
Comedy Bang! Bang! is the long-running podcast that’s featured the comedic brilliance of Lauren Lapkus, Paul F. Tompkins, Nick Kroll, Ego Nwodim, James Adomian, and hundreds of others thanks to its “open-door policy.” Since 2009, it’s been a chronicle of alt-comedy, attracting those with a reverence for the irreverent and guided by their revered comedy reverend: Scott Aukerman.
The Bang! Bang! brand is, at its core, a reflection of Aukerman’s taste for the comedic vanguard. The podcast toys with its haphazardly constructed canon that’s fervently fact-checked by the show’s dedicated fanbase—whether the performers like it or not. While largely impenetrable to the uninitiated, this occasionally fraught aspect of the show is perfect fodder for 255 pages of lovingly produced extensions of inside jokes and character backstory “created” by the characters themselves. Tompkins’s prolific contributions are well represented, as are new favorites like Gil Ozeri’s small-talk robot Dr. Sweetchat and classics like Seth Morris’s eternally-ailed Bob Ducca.
Paste Magazine got to speak with the Mr. Show alum about his new book, the show’s early days, and the one PFT character that didn’t make the cut.
(cue a cappella version of the Mos Eisley cantina theme)
Interview has been edited for clarity.
Paste Magazine: I’m curious about how your perception of Comedy Bang! Bang! has evolved over the years. What’s its purpose and what do you want it to be?
Scott Aukerman: When I started, podcasting was in its nascent form. The only podcasts I really knew about were comedian hangout shows, like Never Not Funny was the one I’d been on several times with Jimmy Pardo, but also the Ricky Gervais Show. I thought the show might be that in the first week, and then I pivoted into interviewing comedians—sort of a proto-WTF. Then after the third week, the programming director said that particular show was really boring and he always thought that I would be doing comedy instead of just talking about comedy.
I was like Okay, that’s a good note, so I swung into approaching it like how Conan O’Brien would do a panel, but on a podcast. I’d have comedians on doing their jokes and I would set them up. That was me not having incredible confidence in my own abilities, but I knew everyone’s act really well so I knew how to be a genial host who could throw to them.
Around the 10th episode, Andy Daly was on and was doing a character. We got into this weird side conversation about a coat he bought that, for me, is when it really came to life. It was less rote and a little less prepared and he’s such an incredible improviser, he was able to roll with it. So I left that show going Oh, wow, okay, that was really funny, and it gave me more to do. Around the same time, Paul F. Tompkins started doing characters and he would email me bullet points of what he was going to talk about for the first year so that I could be prepared. Anytime we would get off on a tangent it seemed like the most fun to me and that and that was where the show kind of landed.
Paste: Did it start off as a way to promote the Comedy Death-Ray live show?
Aukerman: Sort of. I was creatively stagnant. I’d been producing the show at UCB for a number of years, which is really fun, but at the same time I wasn’t performing at it every week. I was producing it while writing Hollywood scripts that wouldn’t get made so I was looking for a performing outlet.
I started comedy as a performer who wrote his own stuff and then became a writer on Mr. Show. Early on they were like, Hey, don’t write for yourself, write for us. You’re not here to perform. We hired you as a writer. They were very generous in giving me parts to do after that but it’s sort of like stepping back thinking, Whoa, okay, I guess I’m not a performer anymore. And then I also gave up auditioning because it took so much time out of the day.
Paste: When did you feel you had the audience that could give a spotlight to new talent, or some of your friends that perhaps weren’t getting the credit or attention you felt they deserved?
Aukerman: I started in 2009 so I’d been doing the Comedy Death-Ray show for seven years at that point. The first two years we were just using those people because there were so many I could still have variety. Nick Kroll would do it every three weeks or something and then new people just naturally came in. Like Harris Wittels moved to town and I saw him very early and was like, Oh, I love this dude. So let me put him on. Also, people would say, Hey, if you like me, there’s this other person that you’d really like. So someone recommended Lauren Lapkus to me.
It was really interesting in the early days, you’d put a new person on and the fans would get really upset. They would say like, This person sucks. Why are they on? Her voice is annoying. I would get that for any woman I put on and there’s two ways you can go with that, which is like retreat—I better give the fans what they want. And I was like, You know what, I’m gonna put them on even more, because that’s always been my M.O. even at the live show.
Like, if you don’t like something and I love it, it’s your problem, and I’m gonna show you. That to me is a better way of doing it because maybe you shed some fans or whatever, but you gain more. And I’m not saying those people aren’t real fans because anyone can not like something. The first time I saw Reggie Watts I was like, What is this? I don’t really get it. And then the second time I was like, Oh, I see. It takes time sometimes for people to acclimate themselves to someone’s point of view.
Paste: I feel like there’s this palpable concern from the fans that you’re going to end the show. What were the brushes with that? Did you ever entertain the idea of ending Comedy Bang! Bang!?
Aukerman: When the show is good, I don’t ever want to quit. It’s when the show is hard to do is that it gets to be a little mentally challenging. The time when that happened coincided with the fifth season of the Bang! Bang! TV show. That was a period where I had one day off for a year. I was filming five days a week, while also writing the show, while also writing the Oscars, while also writing for the Bob and David show, while also being on Bob and David’s show, and also going on tour, and also editing Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. I also have to record these shows one day a week but I became like, really good at scheduling at that point. That was definitely hard.
Really, the pandemic is the most serious that I got about it. One thing I hate more than anything is listening to my own voice, and I feel sorry for you right now, but that was a process where we would record the show and they would be generally awkward and then I would have to take about 12 hours a week to edit the show down.
It was a really bad first six months where I was really not enjoying it. I could have just put up a show as a piece of shit and say like, Well, it’s the best we could do, but I really wanted it to retain the flavor of what people liked about the show. It was a very difficult period where I felt like I was letting everyone down and also having to work way too hard on something that is meant to be fun, in the moment, and ephemeral.
Then I started doing the backyard stuff, which was fun, even though it was very difficult to set up and break down every day. It just felt more natural when we were in the backyard. People seem to enjoy us being in the same space together again. It feels way better. At this point, I don’t have any desire to stop.
Paste: You credit [Simon & Schuster executive editor] Samantha Weiner with the idea for the book. What was her original pitch?
Aukerman: It’s one of those emails I get occasionally saying, Hey, this producer or this person wants to pitch you their idea for this. And I didn’t really have high hopes for it because I wasn’t seeing what she saw yet. I had assumed she was talking about doing like an oral history of the podcast or something. I just thought that was too narrow of a prism so I was ready to turn her down, but she said, No, no. She presented me with her vision of what it could be, which was something akin to this book called Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life. She was like, I would love for it to have the energy of this book. It was like the note I got from the programming director who was like, We don’t want you talking about the show. We want you doing comedy. I started getting really excited about it.
Paste: What were the comedy books you enjoyed when you were younger?
Aukerman: The Late Night with David Letterman book I read over and over and over again. It really taught me a lot about comedy and how to write and about the different styles of humor that you could incorporate into jokes and stuff. It’s a transcription of a lot of the bits that they did on the show but then they would break the form. The middle of the book suddenly stops and all of the writers get like three pages to do whatever they want. So I started saying, Okay, maybe there is a book like that, where you can set up and we have the characters on the show, like submitting pieces for a book.
Paste: What was the process of getting the material?
Aukerman: A lot of the time it was like, Here are a bunch of pitches for your characters. Which ones do you like? Then they would usually say, I like this, this and this. Let me work on it. Then they would send it back to me. Sometimes I would edit it or rewrite it a little bit.
Paste: What are some of those submissions you got back that you felt went above and beyond?
Aukerman: I think The Calvins Triplets one was the only one that was surprising, and its breadth and its scope. I got theirs back and it was so detailed and over the top. I could only gush, and say, Oh, my God, thank you guys for working on it so hard. I can’t believe you did it. That was definitely a surprise to me.
Paste: Were there any alts that didn’t make the book that you really liked?
Aukerman: There definitely was a JW Stillwater piece that I hoped to do. Paul F. Tompkins has so many characters that I’m glad we got as many as we did in but there were a few that haven’t made it in so if we ever do a sequel, it’d be cool.
Paste: A highlight of the book for me is that you give us eight full pages of Harris’s Foam Corner jokes [by late comedian Harris Wittels]. How did that come to be?
Aukerman: I really wanted to do something with [Harris]. Of course, he’s not around anymore so I couldn’t reach out to him but I’d always known that Stephanie [Harris’s sister] had his phone but she wasn’t going into it. I approached her very gingerly about it and explained I wanted to do this tribute to Harris if she was willing to go through his phone and find his notes app stuff and send it to me. She couldn’t really find it in herself to do it so she had her husband do it. One day, I got this great email from them of all his jokes attached as PDFs. Stephanie was saying that her husband was reading them out loud to her and she was laughing.
It was something that we worked hard on. I sent it back to Stephanie saying Hey, here’s the finished version. Should we cut any of these? There were a few that we cut but we left some in that the proofreaders sent back notes of like, Are you sure you want this? We were just like You know what? That was Harris. Just leave it in. I’m glad that section turned out so well. I’m glad that you liked it.
Paste: Do you have a favorite Foam Corner joke?
Aukerman: What’s the one about Now clean yourself off? That one is really funny to me because it has so many tags.
The joke is on page 242 of Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast: The Book, available in bookstores now from Abrams.
Kent M. Wilhelm is happy to discuss James Bond with you, regardless of your level of interest. He is a freelance multimedia film journalist whose insignificant brilliance can be found on Twitter @kw_hc.